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State courts evaluate where, how to trim services

Judicial districts throughout the state will have a say in how court services are cut locally.

Each district’s administrative judge has submitted a plan to meet a dollar figure given to them by the state Unified Court System to address a $170 million cut in the judiciary budget.

Chief Administrative Judge Ann Pfau, in a Tuesday interview, said the plans had been submitted and are being discussed with the 12 districts in the four judicial departments.

She would not give out district numbers and said it could take quite awhile to finalize plans. The courts are also working with the various unions.

The state budget adopted by the Legislature for the fiscal year that began April 1 included $170 million less than the $2.7 billion spending plan the judiciary submitted for 2011-12. Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who announced a voluntary cut of $100 million in early March, was told in late March that another $70 million would be needed.

Since then, judges throughout the state have been crunching numbers trying to determine how to make up that reduction.

Judge Lippman has said the cuts will result in a “substantial scaling back” in every area of court spending. He has also projected a significant number of layoffs. Judge Pfau said layoffs will probably number several hundred. Additional cuts are being sought in other areas to minimize the number of layoffs.

A number of statewide initiatives are also being implemented. They include a reduction in services, a hiring freeze, reduced court hours, reducing overtime and cutting jury pools.

One of the casualties will be children’s centers which Judge Pfau said will not be funded in courts other than family courts, where they may have reduced hours. She said some family court children’s centers may only run in the morning.

Judge Pfau said mediation program services may also be cut or eliminated.

In a Monday memo, Judge Pfau called for administrative judges to reduce the number of people asked to report for jury duty. She said the $20 million the state spends on jurors could be significantly reduced by not calling in a larger-than-needed pool of potential jurors.

Judge Pfau said courts in some districts call in between 30 and 40 percent more prospective jurors than needed and that some counties call 100 or more in for a felony trial when pools of 50 are usually sufficient.

“It’s the initial overcall that we do routinely that we need to think about,” she said. “We shouldn’t build an assumption that we need many many more jurors than we end up using.”

Last week, Judge Pfau issued a memo directing administrative judges to have court sessions end at 4:30 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. to reduce overtime costs and to eliminate free lunches for deliberating juries which she said should instead be excused with the appropriate admonition.

She asks the public to be patient and understand that some services may be delayed, but all courts will remain open.

“We’re certainly doing everything we can to make sure that we function as well as we can for the public and to minimize the impact on the public,” Judge Pfau said.